On a day that would ordinarily mark the start of a new football season, the Vikings paused as a team to grieve and remember Tony Sparano's life.
Vikings players, coaches, front office executives and owner Zygi Wilf were among the group of about 250 people who gathered at St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata on Friday to honor Sparano, their offensive line coach who died Sunday of natural causes stemming from arteriosclerotic heart disease.
People from around the NFL traveled to Wayzata for the 56-year-old Sparano's funeral, including New Orleans coach Sean Payton, former NFL coaches Rex and Rob Ryan and Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell. Recently retired Vikings offensive lineman Joe Berger, who played for Sparano in three cities, and Jake Long, who was with Sparano in Miami and Minnesota, were also in attendance.
As mourners filed out of the church and congregated in the parking lot, Payton — who coached with Zimmer and Sparano with Dallas under Bill Parcells — placed his hand on Zimmer's shoulder while Berger joined current Vikings linemen Riley Reiff, Nick Easton, Pat Elflein, Mike Remmers and Rashod Hill as pallbearers, carrying Sparano's casket to a hearse.
It was a final gesture of gratitude and support from players who have talked all week about what Sparano meant to them personally and professionally.
"He took me to places I couldn't go as a player and as a man," Elflein said Thursday. "It wasn't just football with him. He really cared about his players, the well-being of his players. It hurts."
Vikings veterans were scheduled to report to training camp on Friday, while the team went through its last of three practices with only rookies, quarterbacks and players rehabbing from injury. Instead, the Vikings canceled Friday's activities so they could attend services for Sparano as a group.
They will hold their first full-team workouts Saturday at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, as their focus starts to shift back to the upcoming season and the task of following up on last year's trip to the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings have said they will work with Sparano's family on further plans to honor the coach during the 2018 season, and especially in the team's offensive line room, Sparano doesn't figure to be far from players' minds.
"We can't control the things that happen to us in life all the time," Berger said Sunday. "It's up to us to respond to what happens. There's obviously a time to grieve, and that's important, but you can use that to maybe even be better because of it.
"I think there's plenty of examples in sports and in life, where something like this happens and the guys rally behind the situation, get closer together as a group and are better because of it. I think it's up to the group now to respond to this in a way that can be positive at the end of it. The personal side of it, it really hits you hard."